© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Is Art?

Kristina Van Dyke, Director of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, recently gave a lecture to the St. Louis Art Museum docents on African art in the museum's collection. A definition of art rolled off her tongue very smoothly and eloquently. She said, "What is art? It is an expression of what it means to be human. It is another human being trying to communicate something to his or her community or to us in a long narrative of history about what it felt like to work through this kind of problem, to address something hopeful or address illness or address politics.”

This triggered something in me and made me want to ask some people whom I admire in the art world to give me their personal definition of art without thinking too long and hard about it.

I asked Rich O’Donnell, retired principal percussionist of the St. Louis Symphony and founder of HEARding Cats Collective, a new music group. He told me it was not an easy assignment and got back to me five minutes after I asked him the question. He said, "What we are conscious of defines our individual reality. ART is a portal to realities that can't be expressed any other way."

Our own Jan Greenberg, one of America's most prominent writers about art and artists for young people preferred to quote Henry James in his short story, "The Middle Years.” James said, "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

One of the very brilliant docents at the St. Louis Art Museum, Susan Weber, who also happens to be a physician as well as a scholar, didn't flinch. She immediately said, "ART is human expression.

The Yale University Art Gallery at an open house asked, "What is art and why does it matter" and asked the people to respond online. Here are some of the responses.

Rachel Dranoff said, "Primal expression. It matters because it makes people feel like they're heard.”

Anonymous said, "Art is creation, imagination, recording, investigation, arbitration, and culmination. It helps define our existence and makes us less alone and frees our frustrations. Of course art matters.”

Jason Smith said, "The ability to invoke emotion in a way that is not easily replicated, and feeling emotion is a definitive part of living."

Oooh and Adam Horowitz said, "Art is what we create, partake, and explore in order to itch at the void and celebrate humanity."

Aaron Mishara said "Art is the human contribution to nature, enviously mirroring its beauty, but introducing human error."

Leon Botstein, in an internet article, said that art is a word used all the time and that it transforms the everyday into art such as Warhol with his soup cans and Lichtenstein with his comic books.

From Art History-A Preliminary Handbook by Dr. Robert Belton come several definitions of art--the imposition or order on disorder--the creation of illusions--the heightening of existence--the giving meaning to life.

Maria Popova in her "What is Art? Favorite Famous Definitions, from Antiquity to Today, quotes many luminaries.

Frank Lloyd Wright, writing in 1957, as cited in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture,Nature, and the Human Spirit: A Collection of Quotations says," Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use."

Frederick Nietzsche, made famous all over again by Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing says, "We have our Arts so we won't die in truth."

Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, says, "Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known."

Leo Tolstoy in his essay, "What is Art?" says, "Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God: it is not as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy: it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs: it is not the production of pleasing objects: and,above all, it is not pleasure, but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

I've always said, it takes a lot of nerve to write, paint, sculpt, sing, play an instrument, dance, etc. and say, "Hey this is art!! Take a look or a listen and Francis Ford Coppola in a recent interview said, "An essential element of any art is risk. If you don't take a risk, then how are you going to make something really beautiful that hasn't been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk."

I  certainly can't "one up" any of these definitions, but I'm sure glad that we have art in our world since as someone once said, "Art nourishes the soul."